Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, New York

by Kim Steele

Untitled, 1971

In this current milieu of political upheaval and rancor, these acerbic drawings of Guston’s strike a poignant cord with the American public.  These drawings were executed in Guston’s studio in Woodstock, New York, collaborating with the writer and friend, Philip Roth who had just completed a similar critical series of essays, titled ‘Our Gang.’

Untitled, 1971

As in todays climate, with the recent election of a controversial character, Donald Trump, the US was struggling with the violence and failure of the Vietnam War, two tragic assignations, and civil unrest not seen before.  The drawings (180 in total with three remarkable paintings, one not seen before by the public) circle our 37th president, Richard M. Nixon and his cronies, specifically Henry Kissinger, John Mitchell, and Spiro Agnew.  The first represented by simply a pair of glasses, and the middle by jowls and a pipe, and the later by the pointed head. The drawings, created with a pen, follow a satirical tradition of many centuries, reminding us of Hogarth, Pope and Swift.  In fact, the English law that we follow, permits for the satirization of political figures, safe from retribution.

San Clemente, 1973, Oil on Canvas

To place the work in context, Guston had recently broken from the art establishment current trend of Abstract Expression in a seminal show, which was poorly received, at the Marlborough Gallery in 1970;  he promptly left for a sojourn in Italy to lick his wounds. In fact, the leading critic of the day, Hilton Kramer of the New York Times titled his review, “A Mandarin Pretending to Be a Stumblebum.” It was akin to renouncing God in the Church. Guston’s work had become highly personal, grotesque and colloquial in nature boarding on the absurd, a far distance from the current movements.

Untitled, 1971

Guston’s art incorporated many elements of his childhood – light bulbs, cobble nailed shoes, antique cars and hooded figures.  His difficult childhood rose to the surface, as did his struggles, with his wife, and with alcohol.  Despite the criticism from his peers, with the exception of Barnett Newman, he pressed on wondering why the world of art professing creativity–was so myopic.  He employed common elements, like golf clubs and palm trees, in a menacing manner to upstage the complicate nature of the political process.  We are all involved in the demise of civilization.

Untitled, 1971

The work is overwhelming in numbers and sensibility.  The derisive depiction of Nixon is almost too sharp and intimate to view.  This writer remembers the Watergate Hearings and the moment he stepped down (one of those moments that one remembers exactly where you were), so the context is clear.  One wonders the significance to those who were born much later.  As Philip Roth wrote, “The wonder of Nixon (and contemporary America) is that a man so transparently fraudulent, if not on the edge of mental disorder, could ever have won the confidence and approval of a people who generally require at least a little something of the ‘human touch’ in their leaders.”  Sound familiar?  Nixon was attempting to create his own myth, which is exploited in these drawings in a farcical manner, poor boy makes good.

Untitled, 1971

There are a variety of periods of Nixon’s life depicted here, from Nixon’s poor youth to college days and then to his later years, with references to events that require an historical knowledge. (China)  It is the breadth of his indictment here that carries the weight of the conviction. The locations of the drawings-beaches, bedrooms and golf courses that ground the scathing satire of Nixon and bring them home to the viewer.

Untitled, 1971

An interesting weaving of the alienation and angst that are prevalent in his work, are found in these drawings, and were almost personalized by Guston. Since the 1970 controversial exhibition was the introduction to this style, these drawings may have provided further inspiration for elements: trains, beds, empty gazes, and barren walls that he incorporated into his later paintings. It was a very dark time in American politics.  When the tapes were aired, Nixon’s vile language regarding race, Jews and his opposition were shocking. His VP, Spiro Agnew received the same vitriolic treatment with a pointed head shape, alluding to the KKK.

Untitled, 1971

The caricatures of Nixon’s facial features include a nose and cheeks resembling, and not subtly, a phallus and testicles are very damning of his political transgressions. Guston intended to publish these detailed drawings as a book, but decided against it for whatever reason, but the University of Chicago Press published seventy-three of them in 2001 finally with his daughter’s permission.  The details and arched symbols throughout the drawings are very deserving of close examination.

Untitled, 1971

When the Supreme Court ruled that the Watergate tapes (named after an apartment complex) be made pubic, it was only a short walk to impeachment which he side-stepped by his resignation in 1975.  Guston revisited this series then.  Now rendered as a ‘victim,’ which he brought on himself, in a satirical fashion, possibly relating to the title of the series (Poor Richard).  In the remarkable painting of Nixon, banished to the Western White house in his hometown of San Clemente, Nixon is depicted with his grotesquely afflicted leg, dragging it along the beach, with a tear weighting his jowls down.  He was truly a symbol of largess and greed, shame was his cloak, and despair his bedfellow.  Had not Gerald Ford pardoned him, he would have served jail time.

Untitled, 1971

Currently showing at Hauser & Wirth New York, 22nd Street

Closing: 14 January 2017

 

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Previous post:

Next post: